By Chelsea Elkins, Program & Marketing Manager
I’m not normally an angry person. Really.
But I’m also no stranger to the emotion. In a world rife with inequity, bias, and realities that can make the most patient of us want to scream, anger is not uncommon. When I’m in the throes of it, I can focus on nothing else (including effective solutions to the issue) and find that my productivity and longevity suffer.
I’ve been pondering the benefits of anger lately. How it can be a wakeup call. How it can create needed boundaries. Anger can be the spark – to start a revolution, to fight injustice, to say “enough”. But it cannot be the whole flame or we will burn out. While anger can trigger productivity, anger itself is inherently not a productive emotion. And for sustainable change to occur, I’d argue that anger must evolve – into whatever is needed: passionate organizing, relentless activism, a resolute boundary – because anger alone is not enough.
So how then do we turn our anger into something useful? I believe the answer is equanimity.
I recently spent a precious Saturday attending a dharma talk titled “Fierce Equanimity” through The Lotus Institute with Dr. Larry Ward and Dr. Peggy Rowe. The talk discussed how to relentlessly, fiercely display equanimity (or a calmness and evenness of mind and emotion) regardless of life’s circumstances.
This concept states that one can address and overcome challenge and injustice with equanimity in lieu of anger. Instead of rage, determination and perseverance may better serve us. Rather than shouting, a calm but resounding “no” can be just as effective. In exchange for riots, nonviolent protests can mobilize a community. Our middle fingers can be playful instead of aggressive (kidding). This way of being suggests we can combat hate with a fierce and stubborn gratitude.
Still with me?
I heard a powerful idea at The Lotus Institute regarding the non-personalization of experience. In other words, anger is not ours to possess. It’s not a toy, cell phone, or piece of clothing that we can claim as belonging to us. It is an unfettered, volatile (and hopefully transient) response that everyone from all walks of life has experienced. This means that since we can’t actually own anger, it doesn’t own us either.
One of the many benefits of equanimity is that it encompasses inclusivity. It transcends “otherness”. It’s an encouragement to try to understand the “humanness” that is always present behind an act of hateful rhetoric. Inclusivity is one of the most effective ways to deflate an anger bubble – because it does away with the us vs. them notion. Equanimity means objectively asking yourself, “What in my life needs to be nourished? And what needs to be de-nourished?” It’s critically looking at societal systems and asking “What here needs to be legitimized? What needs to be de-legitimized?” And based on your answers, acting accordingly.
I want to go on the record and say that letting go of anger and embracing equanimity does not mean succumbing to passivity. Quite the opposite – equanimity often means being part of a slow-moving force, but one that is startling in its power and lasting in its effect. In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says, “I can’t turn back. I have reached the point of no return.” Dr. King is in my mind a model for equanimity. Though he had a lifelong dedication to nonviolence (an important component of equanimity), not one could call him a passive force. Rather, he heeded the call to remain collected and compassionate in the long fight for social change – to powerful results. If anger is the blinding flare, then equanimity is the slow burn that drives us day in and day out.
Passivity in the face of injustice is the opposite end of the spectrum. It is often the companion to apathy and ignorance, and enables the normalization of inequity. Passivity often stems from exclusivity, us vs. them. The funny thing is exclusivity (and therefore passivity) is illogical when accompanied with the awareness that most people desire the same things. We are all on a quest to find happiness, to find fulfillment, to find peace. But, as Dr. Ward asked that Saturday, find peace to do what? Find happiness to do what in the world?
I believe deep down we all know the answers (which are different for each of us). With equanimity, perhaps we can start to ask the right questions.